Valuing lived experience and busting the lifestyle choice myth
Photo: Andy Meakin congratulating Jason Smith on his speech and poetry performance
By Andy Meakin, VOICES Director
This year’s national Insight Conference and Awards from Expert Citizens was spectacular. From the moment our friend Bishop Geoff Annas opened proceedings, the event delivered one powerful message after another about lived experience as a vehicle for systems change.
Jason Smith told his story of reflection and redemption from a prison cell. Unable to free his body, Jason decided to free his mind. The walls and bars could not confine his search for wisdom which began in the pages of comic books, then travelled through reading philosophy, and ultimately to self-expression through writing and performing poetry. His journey of learning and growth is a humbling testimony. People can and do change when the tools and services are accessible.
Rideout, B-Arts, and Expert Citizens delivered a thought-provoking forum theatre based on real stories and experiences. This demonstrated the barriers that people too often experience to both accessing services and to moving on from homelessness in to accommodation then employment.
It would be difficult to overstate the powerful story told by Sammy Woodhouse of her experiences as a survivor of the child sexual exploitation scandal in Rotherham. Sammy chronicled in her speech how she, even as a child, was labelled by numerous agencies as making “lifestyle choices”. These agencies did not then intervene with enough assertiveness to stop the abuse. She later found the insight and courage to expose what was happening.
For the first time, the Insight Awards accepted nominations from across the country to become an event of genuine national significance. Excellent examples of good practice were shortlisted from as far away as Scotland and Northern Ireland. Ben Wood, a work coach at the DWP, won the “Welcoming People” award and delivered an impromptu acceptance speech that made a lasting impression on everyone. It was also great to see examples of excellent commissioning practice with the recognition of Carl Taylor from Gateshead Council for his work with our friends at the Jigsaw Recovery Project.
This first National Insight Conference and Awards celebrated lived experience in words, drama, poetry, and song.
By listening to people with lived experience, we see through the myths of a lifestyle choice narrative that so lazily shifts blame to people excluded from recovery by imperfect services. Of course, services will always be imperfect. By welcoming people unconditionally, listening to people constantly, learning from people diligently, and showing leadership in adversity – we too can make a difference. The enemy of that effort is a lazy lifestyle choice narrative that blame the victims and pretends help is always instantly accessible to those that ask.
Congratulations to everyone nominated for an award, to the excellent speakers, and to Expert Citizens for organising a first-class event. It exceeded all our expectations and will be a source of inspiration to us for the year ahead.